My business partner, Marti, likes to say that Grist & Toll is the newest old idea in the world. And she’s right.
As we officially open the doors to our flour mill, we enter into an endeavor that at first glance seems very new and foreign, but in reality is simply the reintroduction of one of the oldest crafts in the world. Throughout history, cities and towns have sprung up around local flour mills. They have been the true centers of community. Los Angeles is no exception. It’s hard to imagine, but even our sprawling über-metropolis was once a dusty cattle town. Its very first commercial building? Capitol Milling, which still stands today in the heart of downtown on Spring Street, although closed for business since 1998.
At the time of its closure, Capitol Milling was not only the longest continuously running business in Los Angeles history, but also the longest family-owned business. That’s right, a flour mill held that distinction. And imagine our surprise to learn that not even 10 minutes away from our shop in Pasadena is El Molino Viejo. While Capitol Milling was the first commercial structure in Los Angeles, El Molino Viejo is the oldest commercial building in all of Southern California. Yes, of course, a flour mill.
With such rich local milling history, one would think that it would be a given to welcome this business back into the fold. Sadly, no. It has been a long, hard battle to get this mill up and running. Suffice it to say that the concept of milling flour on a smaller, more artisan level threw a lot of city officials for a loop and definitely landed us in the precarious category labeled “outside-the-box.”
We certainly could have saved ourselves a lot of time and trouble by locating the business outside of Los Angeles County and in a more rural area, but as far as we are concerned, that would have defeated the whole purpose. We wanted to bring milling back where it belongs and make fresh flour local and accessible again. You see, we’re not afraid to say that we are dreamers and that we actually believe in this concept of community. And even though greater Los Angeles may be one big, sprawling, never-ending city, we don’t believe it is too big for community. And in our efforts to forge ahead despite the many roadblocks and obstacles in our path, we have been proven right time and time again by the number of city officials and friends who stepped in to help us and encourage us along the way.
So, why us? why this? why now? Well, my answer is — why not?
We are bakers, after all; bakers who want to work with the best possible ingredients. Wheat is the glaring missing link in the farm-to-table movement. Freshly milled flour hasn’t been in our food chain for so long we don’t even know what we’ve been missing. Isn’t flour just flour? Well, actually, no. I’m sure the micro coffee roasting pioneers can relate to that mentality. Flour has become over-processed, unhealthy and, quite honestly, bland.
The more we baked with freshly milled flour made from heirloom wheat, the more we knew that other bakers and chefs of all skill levels should have access to it. It is a revelation. And the different types of wheat and grain we will be able to mill are like baker’s crack to us. Flour is no longer just filler or a vehicle to create loft and volume, but an actual flavor, texture and color building block.
By being local, we hope to encourage much creative interaction and collaboration. That is why we fought to land our business in the center of the action instead of on the outskirts. If home bakers and chefs alike someday view our shop as a place for exchanging ideas and pushing the envelope for how we integrate grains into our baking and onto our menus, then we will know we were on the right track. If we can work with our extended community to develop a sustainable local grain hub that benefits the land, the farmers and the end consumers, then we will know it was worth it, and we are exactly where we were meant to be.
That is the dream. We hope you will join us. Welcome to Grist & Toll.